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CIO interview, Marcus East, chief technology officer, National Geographic

National Geographic’s chief technology officer talks about the three pillars of its technology change programme and being “radical and innovative”

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How National Geographic uses tech to captivate its audience

Media company National Geographic is working on a modernisation of its underlying technology with open source and serverless approaches to enhance its digital commercial offerings. 

The company, about to reach its 130th anniversary this year, hired Marcus East as chief technology officer (CTO) in May 2017 to lead its modernisation efforts and exploit online channels as outlets to engage with its audience in a “more practical way.”  

“Rather than just looking at our pictures or reading an editorial, consumers increasingly want us to give them opportunities to be part of our communities, to really ignite the explorer in all of the people that interact with our brand,” East tells Computer Weekly in an exclusive interview.  

To make that happen, the company started a significant programme of technology change, spanning across three pillars: building a new underlying platform; redesigning the digital experience and developing community products that allow consumers to explore their interest areas. 

“The fact that our leadership, particularly our chief executive, is very passionate about being innovative is great, but our consumers also want us to deliver high-quality experiences to them, which means that we are always looking for new technologies and approaches,” says East. 

According to the CTO, other media companies haven’t necessarily had that cry for innovation that National Geographic has always sought to respond. “Back in the early 1900’s, when photographs in the magazines were first introduced, some people thought it was very scary and very innovative, but it clearly is now a very established way to communicate with consumers,” says East. 

“Similarly, with the things that we are doing on social and technology, some people think of us as being very radical and innovative; but we know that in years to come it will be the standard way to interact with consumers.”

Going serverless

One of the main features of the new technology strategy at National Geographic is a cloud-first approach adopted by the firm in partnership with parent company 21st Century Fox. Together, the firms are designing and implementing a serverless architecture platform under an initiative dubbed Cohesive Intelligent Platform (CHIP). 

Many of the core systems used by National Geographic were hosted in a traditional datacentre, and the program with Fox will see the migration of nearly all of the on-premise capabilities to a public cloud environment, where Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the key partner with some services on Microsoft Azure. 

Going forward, East does not anticipate building any new datacentre capability. Instead, any additional needs – such as native mobile experience currently being developed – will be primarily catered for by the serverless environment. 

“We designed the whole application using the serverless architecture. That’s really important as it allows us to use the resources needed to power the application very cost-effectively,” he says.

“It also means that we can move to different countries and markets very quickly, just by building the app on AWS or other environment without having to invest on infrastructure.”

A useful case study

According to East, serverless computing has been of interest not only to National Geographic alone, but it provides a useful case study for media companies. That’s because not many sector companies have not embraced the approach due to the complexities associated to the vast amounts of content they usually have – and equally, the large amounts of legacy systems. 

“[Large legacy portfolios and content] can hold you back and make you less likely to embrace some of the new techniques that are coming down,” he says. 

Still, the migration under the CHIP program is undeniably complex and, in order to make it work, partnerships with the company’s technology vendors have been crucial. 

“We don’t believe we have all the answers [on serverless] – we’re experts when it comes to storytelling, so we’re very happy to get expertise from AWS, from Microsoft and also from other media companies, to help us tackle some of this challenges and that has been very fruitful so far,” says East. 

“Also, we haven’t decided to build this as a huge program. We have identified an opportunity, then made a proof of concept before moving on with a larger implementation – that helps us to contain the risk and also build the confidence of the team.” 

Embracing open source 

Going open source is another highlight of National Geographic’s IT transformation. The company has historically used a mix of more than 10 bespoke systems and alternatives available in the marketplace, including Adobe AEM, Drupal and WordPress. 

Ahead of the migration, a thorough analysis has taken place to map business processes, such as workflows of photographers and the steps involved since the moment an image gets captured until it reaches the firm’s systems and gets processed internally. 

“Consolidating onto one open source content management system will bring some real benefits to us”

Marcus East, National Geographic

 

By doing this analysis, the company has decided to replace all its legacy applications by a single content management system. The adoption of open source platform Drupal as a core platform going forward is expected to increase efficiency for staff and collaborators while significantly enhancing the IT portfolio in a cost-effective way. 

“Consolidating onto one open source content management system will bring some real benefits to us such as availability of skills and flexibility,” says East, adding that the move to open source allows National Geographic to become more integrated to the media technology community. 

“Increasingly, we’re spending time with other organisations that face similar challenges to share expertise and best practice and going open source is enormously helpful in that sense.” 

Customer-facing projects 

As National Geographic makes inroads in having all its content available digitally, other ongoing projects are focused on developing ways to present and monetise that material across its online audience. 

The first pillar of that customer-facing work is a website redesign using a mobile-first approach. Prior to the current global beta version of the website, the company carried out extensive tests with consumers on user experience aspects like navigation, structure and design. Tools such as Net Promoter Score were also introduced to measure consumer engagement online. 

“It’s very early stages, but we are seeing that consumers are really engaged with us online, that they like the content that we are producing and they have an expectation that we will continue to produce a more customised and personalised experiences for them,” says East. 

Over the next six months, East aims to fully launch the new website, NationalGeographic.com. but before that, the team will gather more consumer feedback and further optimise the site. 

Another goal for 2018 is launching the firm’s NG1 mobile app, currently available only in Australia, in other two markets – the company’s home market, the US, being one of possible countries to see the tool next. More than 100,000 active users in the first phase of the app roll-out have registered, even before marketing for the app launch in March commenced. 

The next stage for online, says East, is personalised services for consumers. The revamped website has some features that will be helpful in that sense, such as an artificial intelligence (AI) engine that looks at consumer preferences and their content usage to provide a bespoke experience online.  

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Future projects under the online strategy include improving services for segments such as National Geographic’s photographer community of just over 850,000 members. By analysing the data generated by the platform, it was found that the product has an important role for its users.

“By understanding the benefits that our consumers and our members get from our offerings, it allows us to analyse them, then redefine, refine and redesign them to be even more effective,” he says. 

Another thing on East’s radar is improving premium membership capabilities. As part of this work, the team is looking to understand what resources consumers would like to have if they had paid for an ad-free experience. 

“Examples of things we have heard so far is that people would like to save their favorite photographs, have a number of private bookmarks and potentially be able to customise some elements of our homepage. So all of that is being done as a second part of that strategy.”

As part of the redesign efforts, the team is also creating a website for the celebration of National Geographic’s upcoming anniversary, which will allow invited consumers to see the future digital footprint of National Geographic. 

Availability of text, images and video online is also crucial to developing and nurturing the company’s  social footprint, which already boasts 412 million followers across platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat. “Making sure that content is ready to be surfaced in those channels is really important to us,” says East.   

Access to skills

In addition to partner support, in-house capability is crucial to ensure the success of the company’s various technology initiatives. A review of the 100-strong product and technology team was carried out last year ahead of hiring new staff. 

“We did a capability review, but we’re also very clear about the change that we needed to make, that’s why we had to bring onboard some new talents as well. Of course, integrating new talents and new capabilities into an existing team is a challenge, but we had great success with that so far,” says East. 

“We have a very loyal workforce people working here at National Geographic and some very high skilled people. Our presentation at last year’s AWS Reinvent that our team gave was considered to be the most interesting and that’s testament to the skills that we have,” he adds. 

But access to IT skills is a problem globally, even more so when it comes to emerging tools and approaches. One of the approaches East has used to work around that issue is to change the way he engages with the consulting community.  

“Whereas in some models you just get consultants to come and do the work and deliver a tangible deliverable, we’ve made it clear to all the organisations that we work with need to be transferring knowledge and helping to build capacities within our team and that’s been really effective for us,” says East.

Executives from other sectors

In addition, bringing in seasoned technology executives from other sectors outside the media space has also been instrumental to driving the transformation process. 

“Sometimes in the tech space you do need to have a small number of very senior people who bring a great deal of expertise and confidence. Having those people can be instrumental to having this kind of culture that you need in a high performance technology function,” he says. 

Competition for technology skills is fierce in the marketplace, so East spends a great deal of time making sure his department offers an attractive work environment. 

“We’re very clear about what skills we need and how best to hire this skills in the marketplace,” he says. “We’ve been very successful so far in hiring people and building out our team, but we know that it’s a very competitive marketplace out there, so we have to work hard to compete for the best talent.” 

Looking ahead 

As the fundamental technology changes set in East’s agenda get delivered, he hopes that in the coming year, the team will continue to evolve and be focused the mission of building compelling consumer experiences by embracing experimentation and an agile approach. 

“Clearly, the business is dynamic, media is changing, and the products with technology function have to be able to respond to that change, so that we can support the business,” says East. 

“Some traditional IT teams or technology functions can sometimes be a little bit resistant to change, and so there’s a thing that in a year’s time I’m hoping that everybody will say: that this is a team that embraces change and helps the organisation to respond to change in market dynamics,” he adds. 

East certainly wants to ensure that he has contributed to the company’s financial bottom line, so another goal is to “make a real splash in the marketplace” with new products such as the mobile app. Expectations are high on that front, as the app has already reached 25,000 during its trial period alone.

“Now that we learned what consumers want from that product, we are ready to market it not only in Australia, but also in other markets. So, I’d hope that in a year’s time, we have great numbers to share about the adoption of that app and people’s satisfaction with it.”

Late starters

The fact that National Geographic has only recently started to make such fundamental changes in technology does not indicate the company is playing catch up. Rather, the projects show that it is becoming a reference in its own right. 

“If you consider the things we are doing with serverless computing and mobile, we’re actually slightly ahead of the curve – but I would say that we don’t use technology for technology's sake, we will do innovative things where it helps us to do a better job of storytelling where it helps us to entertain and educate our consumers even better,” he says. 

“Ultimately, we have a mission is to really ignite that explorer in all people and help people understand better the world around them. And so we will always embrace innovation and technology where it helps with that purpose, but not just for the sake of it.” 

“One of the things that is really great about our team is that all of the people here believe in the purpose of the organisation; we want to make the world a better place and help National Geographic achieve its wider mission and purpose,” says East. “We think technology is a great enabler of that.”

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